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The Hayloft Gang

By Edited by Chad Berry

University of Illinois Press, 215 pages, $24.95 paperback

Reviewed by C. Eric Banister, November 2008

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When most people think of radio barn dances, they immediately think of the Grand Ole Opry, the 80-plus year old Nashville-based radio show. Likewise, when people think of the roots of country music, they think of Nashville and other places south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Of course, there is truth in that, but there is much more to the story.

In the early days of radio, the bulk of content came from live performances. On April 19, 1924, Chicago radio station WLS broadcast the first installment of the National Barn Dance. This was over a year before WSM Barn Dance (soon to become better known as the Grand Ole Opry) took the airwaves. In the pre-World War II music world, Chicago seconded only New York, and the National Barn Dance was the city's country crown jewel. The Barn Dance performers were sought after live acts and prolific recording artists who chalked up some of the top selling singles of their day.

But over the course of years, a myth of country music's roots and origins lying strictly in the South began to become canon. The contributions of the first big radio barn dance were essentially relegated to a footnote. Filmmaker Stephen Parry was inspired by hearing the stories of old timers who had listened to the National Barn Dance as youngsters. Parry set out to create a documentary film (slated for PBS fall 2009) to honor the artists and listeners of this historic radio show. It was during an interview with Goode Professor of Appalachian Studies and director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College Chad Berry that the idea for this book was born.

Envisioned as a companion to the upcoming film, the book takes a look at the history of the National Barn Dance through the eyes of eight scholars, all edited and compiled by Berry. The eight essays contained in the book cover several important aspects of the National Barn Dance. The first two essays cover the history and music of the show, both pre- and post-war, giving illustrations of what the show might have sounded like in those early years and telling of the last days of the fabled show.

The next two essays examine the atmosphere of Chicago that allowed the popularity of a rural showcase within its urban context and examines the shows place in the history of early radio. The remaining essays look at issues of race, class and patriarchy (written by Kristine McCusker whose excellent "Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky-Tonk Angels" expertly expounds on the subject).

Berry chose his writers wisely as each essayist brings their own expertise to subject and is able to look at the various facets that contributed to the popularity of this groundbreaking radio show. Looking at the National Barn Dance from different, well thought out angles enables the reader to better place the show within its historical context. Unlike many books written by a group of scholars, "The Hayloft Gang" is an easy and highly informative read. Perhaps, as Parry states in his afterword, it can serve as a jumping off point to further scholarship concerning the contributions to country music of the National Barn Dance.